What does rewilding look like? Discover how two cheetahs transported by IAG Cargo have adapted in the wild

How did IAG Cargo support the Aspinall Foundation in rewilding two cheetahs? Read about the move and airfreight’s central role in protecting animals and their habitats. 

In 2020, IAG Cargo worked alongside the Aspinall Foundation, a wildlife conservation charity, to transport two UK-born cheetah brothers from London to Cape Town. To find out more, we spoke with Sophia Fagan, Overseas Projects Manager for The Aspinall Foundation. Discover how Saba and Nairo are doing now (including Nairo’s adorable new family), the move that got them there, and the importance of air cargo and the charity in rewilding. 

What’s the Aspinall Foundation’s focus?

We specialise in breeding endangered species in our partner parks in the UK for rewilding in their native lands. Our firm belief is that all animals deserve to live wild and free.

What kind of animals do you rewild?

Our partners are world-renowned breeders for clouded leopards, Javan langurs and gibbons, western lowland gorillas, and many more. Across both of our UK partner parks, there have been 150 births of western lowland gorillas in captivity, which is the highest number in the world. 

In what ways are the partner parks different from conventional zoos?

The Aspinall Foundation partners with Howletts Wild Animal Park and Port Lympne Hotel & Reserve. We have a shared belief in breeding animals for purposes other than human entertainment, aiming to breed only endangered species with conservational value for reintroduction. 

The animals live in large, naturalistic enclosures where they always have access to private areas. Animal welfare standards across both partner parks in Kent are paramount. We remain as hands off as possible, so these animals are as wild as they can be when we return them to their natural lands.

What are the main differences between the parks- Port Lympne and Howletts?

Port Lympne has 600 acres of land and offers a safari tour that alone houses over 150 animals. It also offers immersive staycations, from overnight camping pods to luxury accommodations at the Lion Lodge and Tiger Lodge.

Howletts has 100 acres, flatter ground, and houses the largest herd of elephants in the UK. Profits from commercial activities go into our rewilding and conservation work worldwide. 

What’s a common misconception of rewilding?

Rewilding is not a case of moving animals from their captive homes in the UK and dropping them off in the wilderness. It’s a detailed, planned programme for different species that’s crucial, because there has been so much damage done to wild populations through human greed and the desire for commercial gain. 

It’s necessary to make sure we can rewild animals to safe areas that won’t be infringed upon by human conflict. Some of these populations have depleted so much in the last 20 to 100 years. Bolstering these populations with alternative genetics is important to the continuation of the species in the wild and the health of the population. 

Why else is the Aspinall Foundation’s work so important?

Firstly, we protect one million acres of wild forest in conjunction with local governments in Congo and Gabon, partnering with different anti-poaching units. Our work and the work of other NGOs like us around the world is crucial to maintain the small pockets of habitat still available to wild populations of different species. 

We also relocate animals rescued from the illegal pet trade or labelled as problem animals in farming to alternative areas more suitable for them. In addition, we work with partners to captivite breed to support wild population genetic diversity, something we’ve achieved fantastically alongside IAG Cargo with the relocation of the cheetahs.

What role does IAG Cargo play in rewilding?

Without the support of IAG Cargo, rewilding would be much more difficult to achieve. It’s crucial to have positive partnerships with airlines, hauliers, and other transportation companies. We want to ensure our animals are looked after to the highest standard, every step of the way, and IAG Cargo offer direct flight routes that allow us to achieve this. 

We’ve been working together for two years. We first partnered in February of 2020 to move the cheetahs, which was a huge achievement. At the beginning of the pandemic, many flights were cancelled, and a lot of our rewilding work was delayed. But fantastically between IAG Cargo and ourselves, we managed to get Saba and Nairo out before the world went into lockdown. We really value the partnership we have with IAG Cargo. 

Can you tell us more about the cheetahs?

Saba and Nairo were born into the same litter in July 2017 at our partner park, Port Lympne. Shortly after, Saba required medical care due to developmental and liver issues. When he made a full recovery, we reintroduced him to Nairo at Howletts, and it was like they’d never been apart. 

Naturally, males will disperse from the family at a certain age, but we wanted to make sure they were well bonded. The plans were always to rewild. Then they began training at Howletts in preparation to hunt for their arrival in South Africa. 

How did you train the cheetahs?

Saba and Nairo trained for six months. In the UK, it’s illegal to live feed, so we attached feed to a lure. The long metal cable is moved at high speeds from one end to the other, enticing the pair to chase and catch their own food. They did phenomenally well. We try not to train animals, allowing them to follow their natural instincts, except in rewilding efforts. 

How did you prepare the cheetahs for the move itself?

We placed the crates inside the enclosure, giving Saba and Nairo the option to roam freely in and out and become familiar. They ended up using them as shelter. On the day of the transfer, they happily walked into their crates, so that was fantastic. All our crates for rewilding are specially designed and built to IATA compliance standards, ensuring the safety of the animals throughout their journeys.

How were the cheetahs transported to the airport?

Saba and Nairo were transported by Ventura Wildlife, a specialist wild animal transporter. They were loaded into the crates and put into the back of a climate-controlled vehicle, which had cameras, so we could regularly check on them. 

What other planning went into the move, and how long did everything take?

It was around six to eight months of preparations, including paperwork, site visits, transitional dietary plans, pre-export testing, the construction of IATA-compliant crates, transport logistics, supplementary feeding, post-release monitoring, and much more.

What kind of plane transported the cheetahs? 

They flew on a passenger flight, on a 747-400 aircraft. 

How did you make the cheetahs comfortable for the flight?

Two hours prior to take off, the keepers monitored Saba and Nairo and gave them water. They also topped up their water bowls before their flight and ascertained whether they needed calming medication for the journey, which neither of them did: they were very relaxed. 

Their crates were thickly bedded out with straw to make them as comfortable as possible. We liaised with IAG Cargo to make sure the temperature stayed between 12 and 15 degrees. That may seem low, but they’re within an enclosed crate and give off body heat as well. 

It was an eight-hour flight, which is a normal overnight period for these cheetahs. Once Saba and Nairo arrived, they were immediately taken through customs. IAG Cargo were fantastic in cutting down times and making sure their team was available to accept and guide the animals through the airport. 

Where did the cheetahs go from there?

They were moved to Ashia Cheetah Centre in Paarl, South Africa, to prepare for the wild, where they underwent additional lure training. Saba and Nairo were then moved to Mount Camdeboo, a private mountainous reserve that has over 35,000 hectares, which is also in South Africa. They have no predators and there are several species, so have lots of game to hunt. 

Was it challenging to say goodbye?

It’s bittersweet. We spend a long time with these animals and so much is invested into them before their translocation. But I don’t think I can put into words the mind-blowing satisfaction of working towards a rewilding project – which sometimes can take months or even years of preparation – and finally seeing those animals touch home soil and live wild and free as they are meant to. 

What contact do you have with the cheetahs now?

We have a team of people monitoring all our species post release, receive daily updates, and visit regularly. Saba and Nairo have a dedicated monitor that checks their whereabouts every day, and they’re fitted with VHF tracking collars as well, so we can track things such as locations and distances covered. 

Any exciting updates?

Indeed, the most exciting news of 2021: on 14 November, we found out from the cheetahs’ dedicated monitor that Ava, currently the only female on the reserve, had four beautiful cubs sired by Nairo. 

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

Finding air cargo partners that can provide the direct flights we require to maintain the standard of animal welfare that we work towards. There are other airlines that provide direct flights but not the movement of animals, so IAG Cargo have been a godsend to us. 

What’s the future role of air cargo in rewilding?

It’s going to play an enormous and integral role. Rewilding animals to Africa and beyond is not possible without air transportation. It’s crucial moving forward that those partnerships are made. 

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